Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irene North

Communist Party Theory and Practice Among the Unemployed, 1930-1938


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 21, March-April 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The unemployed movement is the only popular movement of the 1930s in which the Communist Party of the United States of America maintained hegemonic leadership. Because Communist leadership was only nominally challenged by outside forces, the unemployment movement offers a clear example of how the Communist Party attempted to translate its political theory into practice. Its achievements and failures are indicative of problems the Communists faced in other sectors of the workers movement.

When the stock market crashed the Party, like everyone else, was caught with its pants down. Initial response was characterized by a tendency to underestimate the extent of the crisis. The party was tailing the masses as hungry people took the law into their own hands by starting to steal food and confront the forces of private property.[1] “Generally the Party lagged behind the quickly developing events.”[2] Up until the Depression the Party’s main work had been concentrated in the Trade Union Unity League. TUUL cadre were instructed to link the demands of the unemployed with the employed. Job security for the employed necessitated a strongly organized unemployed labor force; demands such as resistance to wage cuts, the seven hour day and five day week, free rent, immediate relief, unemployment insurance, and resistance to imperialist war (“Not one cent for armaments, all funds for the unemployed”) were necessary for the survival of both groups.[3] The Party realized, however, that the problem of unemployment had grown beyond the confines of trade unionism. The Party had to create activity especially suited to the needs and problems of the unemployed.

The initial task was to build up the confidence of the American workers so that they could “do something about the terrible situation in which they were placed.” To this purpose, the Party proposed national mass demonstrations against unemployment to take place on March 6, 1930.“.. . the demonstrations will make it impossible for the capitalist class to ignore or suppress the masses of unemployed victims of the capitalist system into quiet, hopeless starvation, thereby condemning at the same time more millions of employed workers . .. together with the unemployed.”[4] The demonstrations were a big success: on March 6 over a million people demonstrated, sometimes battling with the police, throughout the country.[5] The marches showed that unemployment could be a powerful issue. The Party threw itself into the organization of the unemployed.

Party Practice 1930-1933

Communist agitation activity took place on both a local and national scope. The basic, day-to-day work of the Unemployed Councils was to serve the needs of the unemployed. The Party attempted to organize worker committees of clients of soup lines, flop houses, and other relief institutions. These committees raised demands with the administration over issues such as bad food and unsanitary conditions.

Work among the unemployed often centered in the neighborhood. The Party organized the community to protest relief allotments, and to resist gas and light curtailment and rent evictions for non-payment.

The Unemployment Councils consisted of elected delegates from these two types of committees plus representatives from trade unions and other workers’ organizations such as fraternal groups. The municipal Councils attempted to coordinate the committees and planned centralized actions such as local hunger marches. State Unemployed Councils were organized for mobilizing pressure for state appropriations for the unemployed. The National Council coordinated the national campaigns.

The most advanced members of the unemployment councils took on the special administrative tasks in the neighborhood or city. More often than not these advanced workers were or became members of the Party. This work took on the form of gathering and disbursing food, organizing and maintaining close contact with new unemployment committees and councils, organizing rent eviction, mortgage foreclosure, and gas and light resistance, demanding free lunch service in the schools, registering the unemployed in trade unions, and fighting the, “misleadership” of the unemployment movement on the part of the AFL, Socialist Party, Musteites, etc. The Councils took pains to especially defend the interests of minority races, as they suffered the worst because of discrimination.

Quite often relief for a family in crisis was immediately secured through generous temporary sharing of home and hearth of local Communist cadre. In this and the above mentioned ways many Communists were able to build respect and friendship for the Party through service, thereby underlining the strength of collective action and the failure of government and business in providing for the needs of its citizens.[6]

The Party also attempted to raise class consciousness through its technique of protest. Resistance to rent eviction is one good example of how the Party tried to raise the issue of disrespect for the sanctity of private property through its relief work:

Representatives of the Council, upon hearing that there was furniture on the street at a certain address, would assemble a group to resist the eviction process. The group often increased in number during the period of active resistance until a force of fifty to one hundred men was assembled. Sometimes the owner of the furniture was swept along by the enthusiasm of the crowd to take an active part in the proceedings, but sometimes the owner was not even present and at other times he took little or no part in the rather disorderly proceedings.

Quite often conflict with the police developed, and resentment built up over the beatings, arrests, and sometimes murder of demonstrators.[7]

One unemployed worker whose eviction had been prevented by “direct action” had the following comment to make:

We chased the constable twelve blocks. And we would have beat the hell out of him. The Unemployed (sic) Council was built on action, not promises. The eviction was stopped. For three weeks, we would wait for recognition from a relief office. Our Committee got it for us in fifteen minutes.[8]

As relief during this period was mainly carried out through private agencies, individual “client” complaints had to be settled with social workers or their supervisors. The Party often voiced contempt for the nature of relief as practiced then in the US:

... at the time the present crisis began .. . the question of relief was relegated to the private ’charity’ agencies that operate on the ’case work’ theory. This theory is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our social system, but that some individuals are ’somehow’ unable to adjust themselves to our ’perfect’ social order. This means, also, that unemployment and destitution are the fault of the individual and that, therefore, having no one to blame but himself, he has no rights to make demands upon the class that profits from, and the government that maintains the capitalist system.

The so-called charity agencies in turn gladly cooperated with the government in fostering this attitude. First because these agencies are controlled by leaders and representatives of the ruling class. Second, because they saw an opportunity to exploit the misery of millions of the unemployed for the purpose of increasing the success of their many fund raising campaigns.[9]

The Unemployment Councils challenged the bureaucratic and paternalistic charities by sending down large groups of unemployed workers to demand redress on individual grievances, thereby disrupting office procedure. The delegation demanded immediate attention, “without previous appointment and regardless of staff members’ schedules.” When the grievance concerned a member of a minority race, the committee was careful to include more minority representatives, “highly out of proportion to the comparative numerical significance of the group.” Often neighborhood crowds gathered outside the office as protest continued inside. The attack on the charities often took on a personal nature as social workers and administrators were accused of internally taking on the non-humanitarian character of the charity institution. One news-sheet stated:

’Home visitors’ or snoopers are only relief workers on a cash basis. They are picked for their ability as snoopers and stool pigeons only. They ask you so damn many questions that there is nothing personal left to you anyway.[10]

Relief agencies responded to the Councils disruptive tactics by rationalizing protest and bureaucratizing grievance procedures:

Rules were made as to size of committees, times for meeting, limits as to length of meeting, arrangements for special appointments and emergency cases. Sometimes special persons were assigned to meet with committees. Systems of form sheets for recording complaints, and schemes for classifying and interpreting complaints also developed in some places.

The Council’s committees often resisted these impositions and police were called in to guard the local offices. This act served to further enforce the unemployed’s impression of the integration of the relief agencies, the government, and the military.[11]

In its trade union activities the Party tried to link the struggles of the employed and unemployed. The battle for relief was particularly important when workers were on strike. The Unemployment Councils exhorted the unemployed not to scab. During the 1931 coal mining strikes in Pennsylvania, the Councils organized picket lines at the scab agencies, often resulting in “pitched battles with the police.” Relief demands were included in the strikers’ demands.[12] Agitation around relief sometimes directly led to union activity, as in the case of steelworkers in one community. Edith Briscol proudly reported:

For instance, in one of the steel towns close to the striking area we started the relief campaign in the following way: we rented an empty store, put up a sign outside: “Miner’s Relief Station; Support the Miner’s Strike Against Starvation.” This attracted the attention of many steel workers in the neighborhood. Many of them came inside the store; many brought food and money with them.

Through these contacts we succeeded in building a relief committee. Then we began a systematic relief campaign, every-day collections of food, visiting warehouses, visiting organizations, arranging affairs and picnics for relief, etc. As we went along our relief committee grew larger, more representative.

Most of the members of the committee worked part-time in a steel mill. We called a special meeting of the best elements where we took up the conditions in the steel mills and explained the role of the MWIL [Metal Workers Industrial League] connecting it up with the struggle of the miners. As a result of this meeting everyone present joined the MWIL. Once the group was established, the members began activities right inside the mill. Again they used relief as the major issue (collecting money inside, recruiting more members for the relief committee . . .) . We found that one of the best ways to popularize the issue inside the steel mills is by holding open air shop meetings just before pay day and then follow up this by using collection lists inside.[13]

The Party encouraged striking women workers and wives of strikers to work in the relief kitchens (although this position was the official Party line, it was not always followed) thereby actively involving women in the strike and relief experience.[14]

Demonstrations for relief measures among auto workers and their families in 1931 and 1932 probably did much for the later unionization of auto workers. The first demonstrations centered around an auto plant for unemployment insurance happened at the Briggs factory, which depended on Ford for its orders in November 1931. Conditions of the Briggs workers were especially bad. A 10,000 person workforce had been cut to 500. Most remaining workers worked part time and they each had to pay $1.25 to the Community Fund and an insurance fund “that never insured anyone.” Discrimination against blacks was severe; female employees were forbidden to talk to black workers.

A shop committee organized by the Young Communist League decided that relief was a major issue. The committee approached the local Unemployment Council with the idea of a local Hunger March. Demands were formulated that included

1. Unemployment insurance equal to wages while working and not less than $15 a week.
2. No discrimination against women, single, Negro or young workers.
3. 8 tons of coal immediately for the families. Free groceries until insurance goes into effect.

And for the employed:

4. Full pay for part time work.
5. No insurance money out of our pay.

Preparatory work for the main march consisted of door-to-door canvassing of Ford and Brigg’s workers neighborhoods. Canvassers collected a list of 75 Ford and Briggs families who needed immediate relief to prevent starvation. Workers and unemployed were leafletted; three mass meetings were held. The day before the Hunger March, children marched in two parades with noisemakers and signs.

The following is a description of the Briggs Hunger March and is probably typical of Hunger Marches aimed at factories:

Our leaflets called upon the unemployed Briggs and Ford workers to assemble at the Unemployed Council headquarters to prepare for the March. Early in the morning we had distributed special leaflets to the men in the plant that we were coming about noon hour and that they should come out and support the fight for unemployment insurance. At 10 o’clock about 250 men and women and children assembled in the council headquarters to prepare for the march. First we had a meeting. A vote was taken on the demands. A committee of 5, was elected, one Negro Briggs worker, one young girl Briggs worker, one white worker, and two members of the Unemployed Council. Many members of the Council were unemployed Briggs or Ford workers. This committee was to be our spokesmen and present the demands. The workers then lined up and received their banners. And then the March began. But here we saw how far Murphy’s demagogy had penetrated even the leadership. We thought we would have no trouble in marching because we had been allowed before. We had not marched two blocks when Murphy’s police in scout cars drove into a street we were crossing and made a barricade ofscout cars. But the workers fought back and defended their banners. Especially the women led the line to smash through the police. Three times the workers were attacked and fought back with the utmost militancy defending themselves with bricks and sticks from their banners. The police were repulsed and the line now swelling to 600 marched in orderly fashion on to the plant. Just as we reached Highland Park, the H.P. police came to meet us and asked us who was in charge. The workers almost as one answered “We Are.”

... The auto bosses unable to smash the line before we got there tried another method. When we got to the plant they swung every gate and door tight shut. They locked the workers in the shop from coming out at lunch hour. In front of the plant there were many workers waiting for the March to arrive and in about 15 minutes there were around 5,000 workers in front of the Briggs employment office. The employment bosses sneaked away from meeting our committee. Inside the plant the workers who were locked in became indignant and demanded that they be allowed to go out. In fact the work for the whole afternoon was disrupted. The fellows who had gone out for the early lunch hour were locked out and could not go into the plant and join the demonstration. Many workers sneaked out through an unused door and joined in. The rest of the workers leaned out of the windows listening to the speakers. We told the workers “We, the unemployed, are organizing. Ifyou fellows go out on strike we will not scab. We must fight together for unemployment insurance from the company.” A vote on the demands was taken with unanimous voting and cheering on every demand. The delegates to the National Hunger March spoke and the crowd voted to support the National Hunger March to Washington and cheered the delegates. For two hours we demanded that the Briggs boss see our committee. We then took a vote from the workers to march to the Ford Company Store. With a cheer the workers marched to get their “turkey.” Just as we reached the Ford Company Store the Ford flunkeys hurriedly cleared the store of customers and slammed the doors in the face of the hungry Ford workers the day before Thanksgiving. When it became apparent that we could do nothing more then, we marched back to protest the arrest of two workers during the fights in the March. At the protest meeting 45 workers joined the Union from Ford, Briggs and other plants. Now the Union has been following up these contacts and many have become real members. Many of the families who signed up for relief also joined the Union. The original Union group has grown to about 25 and the Ford group has jumped to over 100 members in that territory. A characteristic of the whole march was the large amount of young workers, about 30%.

The success of this Hunger March inspired the famous Ford River Rouge Hunger March that made national headlines.[15] Four demonstrators were killed at the Ford Hunger March of March 7,1932, in a massacre by the Dearborn and Ford Corporation police.[16] It was the first time demonstrators had been killed since the start of the Depression. Great public debate took place over the demands of the unemployed and the merits of marchers and police. The bourgeois press was horrified at the chaos in the streets. The New York World-Telegram warned:

Under the extreme provocation of many months of suffering the unemployed have been heroically patient and peaceful.

The way to turn those 8,000,000 peaceful citizens into angry and destructive mobs is to use guns on them as the Dearborn police did yesterday.

It is imperative in this emergency that Federal, State, and local authorities use their heads instead of their guns.[17]

Locally, the demonstrations of the Unemployment Councils and the trade union protesting unemployment and inadequate relief led by the CP helped to focus worker discontent onto the government and corporations. The Party believed that national unemployment insurance and relief at the expense of the employer was a demand that, if won, would be a victory for the working class. Administered this way, it would be, in effect, a new distribution in the workers’ favor of surplus labor value, or in other words, profits. In 1931 and 1932, the CP organized two national Hunger Marches in Washington, D.C.

Both demonstrations were timed in early December so as to aim at putting pressure on the opening session of Congress. In both years, a little over one thousand delegates converged on the capital from all parts of the country. They came in car and rail caravans and agitated in every town along the way. Local Unemployment Councils welcomed the delegates and agitated for the caravans’ overnight provisions. Energized by the National Hunger March, towns often staged their own local hunger marches and other activities. Jn Milwaukee, for example, the city council was forced by the pressure of the Unemployment Council to supply supper, breakfast, and 200 gallons of gas for free to the caravan. A city-wide conference, with 57 delegates representing 24 workers’ organizations including AFL locals, posts of Veterans of Foreign Wars, fraternal organizations and TUUL unions and groups, voted on several demands for a local march, including $12/week cask relief for the unemployed and $20/week wages for city and county jobs.[18] All told, according to Party sources, hundreds of thousands of workers participated in the National Hunger Marches.

With the coming of the new year, 1933, and the victory of the Democrats in the 1932 elections, the Party summed up its unemployment work. Unemployment work had to be aimed not only at the municipalities for adequate local relief but to Congress for federal action. Building the local Unemployment Councils through mass work by paying special attention to the direct immediate needs of the people, including the farmers and small shopowners, and agitating for AFL endorsement of unemployment insurance was the “surest road to forcing the United States government to grant Federal relief and unemployment insurance.”[19]

Early Evaluation of Organizational Work

As early as the spring of 1931 it became clear that the unemployment work had run into some serious organizational problems, most of which were to plague the CP for the duration of its activity among the unemployed.

The Party found that among its members there was a great deal of confusion over the difference between the roles of the Party and the mass organizations. The Party failed to use mass organizations such as the Unemployment Councils as “transmission belts to the broad masses of non-Party workers.” The CP was based on the Leninist model which called for only the inclusion of the most politically advanced workers and intellectuals, “the most conscious and self-sacrificing elements among the workers.” The mass organization provided the vehicle for the organization of the “workers not yet prepared for Party membership.” Moreover, the mass organization provided the essential medium through which the advanced sector of the working class, the Party, could lead the activities of the whole class. It was the only mechanism that prevented the Party’s isolation from the masses’ needs and aspirations; the mass organization was the middle and necessary link that insured the democratic nature of democratic centralism. Members of the Party tended towards elitism; they failed to see that mass work was the core of communist activity.

Within the Unemployment Councils this weakness took the form of top-down leadership. “The Party’s guidance consists of nothing but one comrade bringing down instructions(!) of the Communist Party to the unemployed workers.” (The Party’s emphasis and exclamation point.) Decisions were made by Party officials who had no contact with the unemployed. Initiative from below was stifled because Party fractions in the Unemployment Councils did “not allow an organization to function except on a basis of a pre-conceived plan brought down to them in the form of an order.” The workers in the Unemployment Councils had to be drawn into the discussion based on local issues if political consciousness was to be raised. All too often the Party forgot one essential element of rising class consciousness: the class learning to rely on itself rather than on leaders.

The Party was over-organized. The rank and file Party member attended an average of five inner Party meetings a week, functionaries even more.[20] (Newly recruited members to the Party, perhaps a little less committed or disciplined than the older members, were often expected to work until exhaustion, contributing to a high turnover rate of members.[21]) Thus Party cadre were limited in the personal time that was necessary to build contacts and friendships necessary for successful mass work.

The Party overrelied on leaflets and demonstrations and not enough on work around immediate local demands. Relief demands too often centered on individual rather than mass needs. Cadre were directed to institute regularly scheduled meetings and elections for worker-controlled Unemployment Council committee leadership positions as a first step in establishing a mass base for the Councils. The final solution would be the development of Party work so that it would be “chiefly carried on through mass organizations.”[22] Work among the employed in the TUUL unions and the AFL was included in this category.[23]

The Party’s Economic Analysis of the Depression

With a new resolve to improve mass work, the Party simultaneously developed a particular interpretation of the Depression experience upon which it based its strategy among the unemployed.

Bill Dunne, in the January 1932 Communist found that

There is no room for further substantial and profitable expansion of the basic industries in the United States, either on the basis of increase of population at home or of expansion of the foreign and domestic market, except by imperialist war, unless the capitalist class is able to carry through rapidly such further attack on the social and living standards of the working population that expansion can be made profitable by sharply increased exploitation .... Permanent mass unemployment is here in the United States to stay.[24]

In April 1932 Harry Gannes specified further the causes for the increased attacks on the standard of living of workers.[25] First the United States’ economic system had to be seen in its international context, which could be characterized by: (1) “the increasing power of the leading clique of the finance oligarchy” which, through its monopolistic power (“the control of the price of important commodities, fusion with the state apparatus, and use of state financial resources” to make high profits at the expense of ruining small farmers, the petty-bourgeoisie, and small industrialists) was able “to transfer the burden of the crisis .. . upon the masses, weaker sections of the bourgeoisie and upon the colonial countries”; (2) state supported monopoly prices, such as grains, oil, steel, railroad rates, etc.; (3) the “rapid growth of short-term credit in relation to long-term credit, resulting in ”speculation, swindling, [and] manipulation by the leading finance capitalists”; (4) inflation through currency devaluation, benefiting finance capital by adversely affecting the working class and small shopowners; and (5) the intensification of international capitalist competition, in the race for “profits and plunder.” In sum, the result of the international credit crisis was the growth of finance capital’s control of the state, “not only nationally, but in various states, countries, and municipalities,” “especially in the leading industrial centers.”

Gannes asserted that the merging of finance capital and the state had led to the dominance of finance capital’s “program from the most detailed city legislation, affecting the distribution of the few pennies of city relief, up to the major policies of war and government finance.” Gannes cited the example of Frank Murphy, then mayor of Detroit. Murphy was forced to follow Wall St. and Chicago bank relief directives in order to receive large loans for relief. In Detroit relief was cut and city expenditures were controlled by the banks. In the case of New York, Tammany Hall received a $90 million loan for the city from a consortium consisting of Morgan & Co., Kuhn, Loeb & Co., National City Bank, the Guaranty Trust Co., the Chase National, and the Bankers Trust, on these terms: (a statement issued by Thomas W. Lamont of the Morgan group):

The New York City, like the national government, and other large governmental bodies and corporations, must undertake measures of strict economy, and especially in these times, must proceed on a more restrained and orderly development of its constructions program; must make every effort, whenever possible, to transform existing enterprises which today are not self-supporting into ones that carry themselves, and thus take a heavy burden off the city’s budget.

The reference to self-supporting enterprises was aimed at the city’s utilities, in which the bankers owned millions in bonds. They were demanding a price hike so that profits would rise.

As final evidence for his claim that the bankers were increasing their control over city administration, Gannes quoted a New York Evening Post article:

A consortium of trade and finance is usurping power from politicians as a result of Chicago’s “taxpayer’s strike,” in an effort to save the city from bankruptcy.

A group of bank presidents, department store heads and chiefs of manufacturing companies, without legal charter of any kind, has grabbed legislative and administrative authority with scarcely a protest from the regular office holders, who confess their lack of ability to deal with the situation.

Gannes predicted that the greed of finance capital was precipitating further crisis:

For the moment there has been a slight let-up in the bank failures; the full force of bankruptcies of the large industries, railroads has been delayed at the expense of inflation, huge government expenditures in the interest of the big bourgeoisie (Finance Reconstruction Corporation with its $2,000,000,000 “dole” to the railroads and other industries) have given the capitalists an opportunity to pay dividends and profits, the burden, for which will be thrown on the toiling masses. All this, while temporary delaying the full force of the credit crisis, lays the basis for a worse financial collapse through artificial delay, through the spreading over of the “frozen assets,” through the propping up of bankrupt enterprise, through the process of pyramiding credit on the basis of worthless paper, through inflation and the growing deficit in the government budget. Meanwhile, basically, the economic crisis, the severe curtailment of production in the basic industries, the growth of unemployment grows worse, and with the interconnection of the worsening of financial crisis, the future perspectives point to a more drastic drive of the capitalists to end the crisis through an attack against the workers and through war.

Workers could expect more wage-cuts, speed-ups, mass unemployment, relief cuts, and attacks on revolutionary trade unions. All these tactics, while resulting in a rise in production would also decrease the number of manhours per unit. Technological developments as well as the speedup would eliminate the need for the current amount of available workers.[26] The result? A surplus of labor which in turn would cause a lowering of the standard of living to the traditional Marxist “sustenance” level.

Most Americans, said Gannes, did not appreciate this “pauperization” process because of the traditional high standard of living in the US as compared to other capitalist countries. The Party’s initial task was to destroy this illusion by raising its economic analysis. The fight for unemployment insurance would also accentuate class contradictions because “... insurance would represent a general rise in the income of the working class, and this can only come from the decreased profits resulting from the tremendous decrease in surplus value because of the great curtailment of production and the consequent withdrawal of millions of workers from the productive process.”[27] Unemployment as an issue should be raised as “at best,... a temporary arrangement for a decent living industry can be adjusted to the required conditions, as in the earlier stages of the USSR, or at worst a constant struggle ... to keep a bare animal existence, as in the case of all capitalist countries where the law has been adopted.” Communists must remember that “Under capitalism laws are not administered for the benefit of the workers but in the interests of the ruling class.”[28] The Party also had to prepare the struggle against the impending imperialist war by resisting war expenditures, usually financed by taxes on the poor.[29] The Councils should demand that the war funds be used for relief.

Communist Reaction to the New Deal

Prior to the New Deal’s relief programs, the Party had little problem posing itself as champion of the working class. The conservative Hoover administration was blatant in its friendship with capital at the expense of labor. By the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration, 13 million (25% of the labor force) workers were unemployed.[30] The Party and the Unemployment Councils had been successful in alleviating local relief needs and through its militant local and national activity had helped to threateningly lay the issue of unemployment and relief before Congress and the President. They had raised a devastating critique of capitalism that seemed to be more legitimate with every passing day. It was up to the new administration and Congress to show that capitalism could survive.

The Communists still predicted its demise. “No matter how much increase in production will take place on the basis of speculation, of taking advantage of the present price scales, and for war purposes, there will come an even greater collapse against which the workers demand protection.” Unemployment insurance afforded this protection. The liberal bourgeoisie and the “social-fascists” had both recognized the issue as being of central importance to workers–the Democratic Party had run on it as a plank in its 1932 platform; the AFL finally reversed its negative position at its last convention. Social insurance was a winnable demand but the Party had to beware the passing of legislation that only partially fulfilled workers’ demands. Cadre were instructed to push for the Workers Social Insurance Bill (Frazer-Lundeen) rather than for the Socialist Party or AFL proposals. Under the Lundeen bill, benefits would not only be greater but financed by a graduated tax on incomes above $5000 and the funds that had been appropriated for war preparation. Relief would be administered through democratically elected workers’ organizations rather than the government.[31]

With the Open Letter[31a and the introduction of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), Party activity increasingly focused on its trade union, rather than unemployment, work. At the same time the Federal Emergency Relief Administration began providing grants for state relief in 1933.[32] With the influx of federal relief funds and the diminished attention to unemployment work, Unemployment Council activity started concentrating more heavily on general policy issues. Locally the Councils still acted as a client’s counsel in the grievance procedure. Direct action continued to be used as a last resort, but its need lessened considerably. Smart administrators used the Councils to smooth out the differences between administration and client.[33]

The Communist Party was becoming increasingly concerned with the growth of fascism and the imminence of war.

The policies of the Wall Street financial oligarchy, as expressed by the Roosevelt regime, have failed to overcome the crisis. The New Deal, with the NRA as its keystone, has led to further impoverishment [sic] of the toiling masses. The character of the New Deal as preparation for war, and development towards fascism becomes daily more apparent... Roosevelt’s program... is leading to the sharpening of all class antagonisms . . . The objective prerequisites for a voluntary crisis are maturing.[34]

The Party had to redouble its effort, it had to prepare the working class “for the seizure of power.” “The greatest obstacle to this preparation ... is the continuing influence of . . . social-fascism,” or in other words, the AFL and the Socialist Party.[35]

Communist attitude towards the “social-fascists” softened a little with the 12th Plenum Resolution of the Executive Committee of the Communist International and the Fourteenth and Sixteenth Plenum Resolutions of the Central Committee of the CPUSA (1933). The Party resolved to join in United Front actions if the aim of them was to “fight for the interest of the workers against capitalism.” “. . . the Party will refrain from making attacks against them [the SP, AFL, etc.] during the time of the common fight . . . But the most ruthless fight will be conducted against all those who violate the conditions of the agreement.”[36]

In 1935, the federal government withdrew direct funding of state relief agencies and instituted the Works Progress Administration. Relief was provided through jobs at poverty non-union wage rates. Not only the Communist Party but much of labor characterized this program as forced labor. To the Party, it was just one more indicator of pre-fascist policies. As early as 1933, Communist cadre were attempting to organize the job relief gangs.[37]

It also became clear in 1935 that Congress was going to pass some kind of social insurance bill. Roosevelt had presented his plan (a modification of the Wagner-Lewis bill) to Congress in January. The Party decided to build an intensive campaign for the passage of their own Lundeen bill. A National Congress for Unemployment Insurance was called for January 1935, to consist of workers and farmers’ organizations friendly to the Lundeen bill.[38] Several local unions of the AFL had endorsed the Communist bill, but Green pulled the AFL out, declaring it as a “Communist-sponsored measure designed to block, rather than promote, social security.”[39] Party fractions in the Councils and other mass organizations were to secure resolutions, participate in state-wide open hearings on the various bills, organize letter-writing campaigns to Congress and the President and even agitate for short pressure strikes in the shops. (Cadre were supposed to point out that the Communist unemployment insurance plan would cut down on scabbing.) Through all this activity, the Unemployment Councils would be strengthened.[40]

Communist political practice was altered at this time by the Central Committee’s decision to create the United Front. Cadre were directed to “shift... [the] emphasis away from independent organization to work within the larger mass organization.” Trade union work was to concentrate in the AFL. In turn, the Unemployment Councils were to work more closely with other unemployment organizations, specifically those of the Socialist Party. Towards the Left Wing of the Socialist Party Communists should

develop the most comradely approach, not conciliating for one second to their remaining opportunist illusions or to their confusion, conducting the most painstaking and patient explanatory work among them to prove them the reformist character[41]

of the Socialist Party. The motivation of the United Front was the growing fear of fascism and war. The Party was slowly realizing that an alliance of all “progressive” groups was necessary to fight a growing international threat of repression against all workers’ governments and movements.

Communists were to work for one united unemployment organization in every community. Since Communists had long ago established hegemony in the movement in the big cities, metropolitan mergers did not threaten the dominance of the Party line among the unemployed. Merger of the small and isolated locals of the Unemployment Councils with other organizations which were dominant in the area was encouraged because the act was “a means of demonstrating” the sincerity of the Communist goal of a unified unemployment movement.

Herbert Benjamin, head of the National Unemployment Council, summarized the achievements, failures, and tasks of the unifying employment movement in June 1935. The Communists had not appreciated both the strengths and weakness of relief concessions that the movement had wrung from the ruling class. The Federal and state governments had finally been forced to recognize the right to relief, but the relief granted was inadequate to meet workers’ rights and demands. Less than half of the unemployed and their families were on relief rolls; relief increasingly took on the form of forced labor.

Tactically, the Council’s reliance on spontaneous direct action had outgrown its usefulness with the introduction of government relief. The Council’s committees had developed into enforcement machinery of the government’s budget decisions rather than the Party’s. Negotiations between Council leaders and relief administrators had taken the place of worker participation. In turn, Party cadre had

little patience with backward workers. They find it much easier to brave police terror in order to present demands themselves than to take the less dramatic and more difficult action which is required in order to convince the more backward workers to organize and fight.

The workers’ immediate demand was immediate relief. The government had centralized the grievance procedure away from the neighborhood office to the district office. Many Council leaders had insisted on ignoring the district level and continued to put pressure on the helpless community office. This tendency often ended in no additional disbursement of jobs or funds, thereby not serving the worker. Communists had to make use of the district offices–“In this way the fight around the immediate needs of the workers is combined with the continued fight against the given institution.”

Since relief was administered through government auspices, unemployment activity often resulted in the unemployed, unlike striking workers, identifying the government as the main enemy rather than the employing class. Therefore, the unemployed were more susceptible to fascism. The Party cadres had to especially raise the political and educational level of discussion in its unemployment work.

In the fight against fascism, cadre were to point out the subservience of government policy to business interests. They had to explain that the work relief projects were aimed at building up war preparations and spirit. The Civilian Conservation Corps was forcing 600,000 youths to participate in “frankly militaristic activity.” Benjamin predicted that only those appropriations that involved “expenditures for war preparations will be carried out properly.” The projects were aimed at the rural, more conservative areas, rather than industrial centers. Moreover, most of the funds were going to be paid for materials rather than for wages, “. . . subsidies to the big trusts and supplements] to huge appropriations already directly made for the army, navy, and other war purposes.”

As for the social insurance bills, Benjamin quoted the New York Times (April 14, 1935):

There are ways of [Roosevelt] letting Congress know that a gesture will be accepted instead of substance. If this should be the outcome of consideration of social security ... it would not occasion great surprise . . . they [Congress] see the President’s point of not conceding too much publicly by way of trimming his program, . . . until he can be sure how much he can gain by stifling of radical legislation . . . (Benjamin’s italics)

Communists were to continue to press for the Lundeen bill.

Benjamin concluded that the government’s new program would have to shift the base of activity. Emphasis was to be transferred from the neighborhoods to the work projects although the former were not ignored. The projects were not characterized as forced labor because workers really wanted the jobs and the chance to work. Instead, the Councils should point out “objectional features, not as a means of discouraging them from taking the job, but in order to prepare them for the struggle that must be waged in order to improve conditions on these jobs.”The aim was to show that job opportunities, uninterrupted relief, true public works, and union wage rates could be won and enforced “only if all workers on every project are organized into a single, militant, rank and file controlled organization... regardless of craft or other organizational affiliation.” Project locals were to attempt to gain affiliation with the AFL.[42] It was not even necessary to press for the project local’s affiliation to the National Unemployment Council, although, of course, if the majority of workers were willing to join, the local would be admitted.[43]

The United Front Achieved

The first step to national unity of all the unemployment organizations was made in 1935 when 500 independent groups merged to form the Workers Alliance of America (WAA). At first refused admission to the Alliance, the National Unemployment Council gained acceptance in the following year. Whereas affiliated organizations automatically liquidated themselves upon entry, receiving proportional representation, the Unemployment Council, while dissolving themselves, still retained much of its prior leadership function. (Benjamin held the most important position, organizational secretary in the WAA). Dues paying membership of the Alliance was estimated at 300,000 in 1936.[44]

National unity brought the unemployment movement recognition and legitimacy.

We [the Workers Alliance] are recognized ... as [the] collective bargaining agency by the Works Progress Administration and by the local relief agency. We are recognized by President Roosevelt and by the nation in general as the authoritative spokesman for the unemployed and WPA workers.

The government approved of the Alliance. The Saturday Evening Post reported that the New Deal representatives, Harry Hopkins and Aubrey Williams, were photographed in a huddle with Lasser, President of the Alliance. Another government official was quoted as saying, “I have said on many occasions . . . that I hope the Workers Alliance will include all of the unemployed in America.”

Much of the Alliance’s time was spent in pursuing grievance complaints. Between January and June 1938 the Workers Alliance pursued 21,500 grievances in New York alone (half of the New York WPA’s total grievances.) In industrial centers where the Communist Party was in control of the Alliance, grievance procedure still maintained some part of its prior disruptive character. Demonstrations, picket lines, walkouts or even sit-downs were used to force a positive settlement. “The tactics. . . result in Alliance victories with enough regularity to keep the organization in a thriving condition.” In 1938, the Alliance claimed 300,000 paid up members with another 300,000 in arrears.

But the role of the Alliance had expanded past that of grievance pursuant. It had turned into a machine for the Democratic Party. The Washington Workers Alliance was credited with Schwellenbach’s defeat for the gubernatorial position and with electing Armstrong as Senator. The Alliance helped to defeat John O’Connor in the 1938 primary mayoralty race in New York, a victory for the Roosevelt wing of the Democratic Party. 1938 saw the final integration of the unemployment movement with the government. “The organized unemployed are no longer merely an undecorative and troublesome fringe on the body politic. They have taken on both the temper and the tactics of an establishment caste.”[45]

The Revolutionary Significance of the Communist Party’s Activity Among the Unemployed 1930-1938[46]

The Communist Party’s ultimate goal was to build a revolutionary movement in the United States. To the Party the material conditions were ripe, the economic contradictions were clear. With proper leadership, the working class would realize that it could reconstitute society so that it would be run for workers’ needs. The relative lack of economic crisis in the planned economy of the Soviet Union indicated to workers that they could avoid the deep slumps of capitalism once and for all.

Early Party strategy among the unemployed was aimed at underlining class conflict. The militant attacks on the system of relief disbursement had not only succeeded in exposure of the corporations and the government; they had forced the state to acknowledge that unemployment was not a personal but a political problem. The Party could be pleased with itself for channeling individual spontaneous militancy into successful collective organizational activity.

Unfortunately, time and space have limited the essential research necessary for determining what the bulk of the unemployed thought about the Councils’ activities. Party work does seem to have been limited by its practice of undemocratic centralism. Always open to the charge of taking orders from Moscow in the first place, the Party’s tendency to disrespect the “backward” workers did much to weaken its attraction. The Party placing itself in the leadership position, rather than winning the position on the basis of worker recognition, found itself leading a class whose real day-to-day interests it often did not understand. On the other hand, the Party’s unity of purpose, commitment, and discipline probably did much to help win the victories and the out maneouvering of the Socialist Party. It seems safe to say that, until the government stepped in, the Party could take much of the credit in helping the unemployed survive the Depression.

Once federal relief was initiated, however, the Party found itself in deeper and deeper quicksand. The Councils through their grievance activity became the arbitrators between the administration and the unemployed. The growing bureaucratization of the grievance machinery was probably slow; even when the Communists got the big picture there was little they could do about it. The Councils were up against a giant machine that, unhappily for the Party, was able to provide people with enough breathing space to maintain life without the need to struggle for subsistence. The irony was that the Councils and later the Alliance channeled potential militant resistance into acceptable administrative procedure, without which the New Deal relief administration could not have survived.

Whereas the Party’s economic prediction of continuous low living standards and mass unemployment until the development of an imperialist war was fundamentally correct, the Party underestimated capital’s ability to bounce back from the Depression. The failure of the Councils to pass the Lundeen bill took the revolutionary potential out of social insurance. The “concession wrung from the ruling class” turned out to be not a concession at all but an instrument used for the further maintenance of capitalism.

The merging of the effects of government cooperation with the rising need to defend the Soviet Union and to fight fascism (resulting in the United Front) led the Councils to ally with the Socialist Party’s unemployment organizations and, ultimately, the left-wing of the Democratic Party. By the Council’s dissolving their organizational integrity, they found themselves in the position of being the left-wing servants of the relief machinery and in effect helped it to function more smoothly. In the early thirties the Party had had the opportunity to attempt to transform the original spontaneous protest of the unemployed into a thriving revolutionary movement. Events within and also beyond their control turned the hope into containment.


[1] Hallgren, Mauritz, Seeds of Revolt Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1933. Hallgren has chronicled these spontaneous acts of militancy.

[2] Daily Worker, Jan. 11, 1930, p. 10.

[3] Communist, Sept. 1930, Vol. 9, No. 9. “Our Failure to Organize the Unemployed,” p. 793.

[4] Daily Worker, Feb. 24, 1930, p. 1.

[5] These are CP figures. Communist June 1930, Vol. 9, No. 6, p. 500.

[6] Party Organizer, Nov. 1931, Vol 4, No. 10. “For Clarity on the Forms of Organization of the Unemployed,” pp. 2-6.

[7] Quoted in Seymour, Helen. When Clients Organize. American Public Welfare Association: Chicago, date unknown (1937?), pp. 14-15.

[8] Ibid., p. 15. Seymour quotes a Philadelphia worker.

[9] Ibid., p. 14. Seymour quotes Herbert Benjamin, head of the National Unemployment Council.

[10] Ibid., p. 15. Seymour quotes Call to Action, a paper of the Port Angeles, Washington Unemployed Council and Affiliated Action Committee.

[11] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[12] Party Organizer, Aug. 1931, Vol. 4, No. 7. “How the Unemployed were Drawn Into Strike Activity,” pp. 15-16.

[13] Party Organizer, Aug. 1931, Vol. 4, No. 7 “Miner’s Relief and the Steel Workers,” pp. 28-29.

[14] Party Organizer, Sept.-Oct. 1931, Vol. 4, Nos. 8-9, “Work Among Women; Attitudes Which Hinder Work,” p. 30.

[15] Party Organizer, Jan. 1932, Vol. 5, No. 1. “Uniting the Struggle of Employed and Unemployed,” pp. 3-7.

[16] For a complete description of the March, see Baskin, Alex. “The Ford Hunger March–1932” in Labor History, Summer 1972, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 331-60.

[17] Quoted in The Literary Digest, March 19,1932, Vol. 112, No. 9, p. 9.

[18] Daily Worker, Nov. 16, 1932, p. 1.

[19] Party Organizer, Jan. 1933, Vol. 16, No. 1. “National Hunger March and the Next Step,” pp. 1-3.

[20] Communist, May 1931, Vol. 10, No. 5. “On the Use of ’Transmission Belts’ In Our Struggle for the Masses,” pp. 409-23.

[21] Party Organizer. Almost every issue contains a reference to overorganization.

[22] Communist, Oct. 1931, Vol. 10, No. 9. “Resolution on Work Among the Unemployed,” p. 838. Communist, “On the Use of ’Transmission Belts’ ...” pp. 409-23.

[23] Communist, “Resolution of Work ...” pp. 838-50.

[24] Communist, Jan. 1932, Vol. 11, No. 1. “The Struggle Against Unemployment and the Communist Way Out of the Crisis,” p. 18.

[25] Gannes got help from Comrade Nauman in the Communist International, Vol. 14, No. 1.

[26] Communist, April 1932, Vol. 11, No. 4. “The Role of American Finance Capital in the Present Crisis,” pp. 325-37.

[27] Communist, “The Struggle Against Unemployment...” p. 18.

[28] Communist, June 1931, Vol. 10, No. 6. “Demagogy and Unemployment Insurance in the U.S.” pp. 532-33.

[29] Communist, “The Role of American Finance Capital . . .” pp. 325-37.

[30] Karsh, Gorman. “The Political Left” in Derber and Yound, ed. Labor and the New Deal. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1961.

[31] Communist, July 1933, Vol. 12, No. 7. “Unity In the Struggle For Social Insurance,” pp. 650-58.

[31a] The Open Letter was issued at an Extraordinary Conference of the Communist Party, held in New York City on July 7, 1933. The purpose of the Letter was to mobilize the entire Party for the new tasks posed by the deepening depression and the New Deal.

[32] Witte, Edwin. “Organized Labor and Social Security” in Labor and the New Deal, p. 246.

[33] When Clients Organize, p. 16.

[34] Communist, Feb. 1934, Vol. 13, No. 2. “Tasks of Our Party for Winning the Majority of the Working Class,” pp. 178-79.

[35] Communist, Feb. 1934, Vol. 13, No. 2. “Forward in the Struggle Against Hunger, Fascism, War!” pp. 148-49.

[36] Party Organizer, March-April 1933, Vol. 6, Nos. 3-4. “Building the United Front for Struggle,” pp. 2-3.

[37] Party Organizer, March-April 1933, Vol. 6, Nos. 3-4, “Organizing on Forced Labor Projects,” pp. 12-13.

[38] Party Organizer, Jan. 1935, Vol. 8, No. 1. “After the National Congress for Unemployment and Social Insurance,” p. 19.

[39] “Social Security . . .” p. 254.

[40] Party Organizer, “After the National Congress ...” pp. 21-22.

[41] Communist, March 1935, Vol. 14, No.3. “Report to the Central Committee Meeting of the CPUSA, January 15-18, 1935,” pp. 198 & 204.

[42] Communist, June 1935, Vol. 14, No. 6. “The Unemployment Movement in the USA,” pp. 528-47.

[43] Party Organizer, June 1935, Vol. 8, No. 6. “Suggestions for Immediate Activity on Work Relief Projects,” p. 12.

[44] These are Seymour’s figures. Benjamin claimed 3,000,000 for the Council alone in 1935.

[45] Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1938, Vol. 21, No. 24. “Who Organized the Unemployed?” pp. 33-36.

[46] This article was written in 1974. Since that date, much new research on the Communist Party and the unemployment movement has come to light. This paper therefore reflects certain weaknesses, particularly the role of blacks in the unemployment movement. It should be noted that the Unemployment Councils provided for many the first experience of blacks and white working together in one organization. It can also be added that the CP’s activities among the unemployed were perhaps most relevant to the black communities, particularly hard hit by the Depression.